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Hennessey saw death with smile, friendship

Chuck Hennessey – Spokane’s best-known funeral director – took the advice he gave families during his 56 years in the business. He preplanned his funeral down to the smallest detail.

For instance, Hennessey, who died a week ago today, will be buried Monday at 10 a.m. out of St. Aloysius Catholic Church on the Gonzaga University campus, rather than his beloved parish, Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes, in downtown Spokane.

“I don’t want people to put coins in a meter to come to my funeral,” he told Jim Asper, manager of Hennessey Funeral Homes and Crematories.

But there are a few things Hennessey couldn’t preplan.

The outpouring of support, for starters. When the news spread that Hennessey, 80, had died after a nine-year fight against prostate cancer, hundreds of people called the funeral home with condolences.

This led to the decision to close the funeral home Monday.

“For the first time in forever, we will be closed on a nonholiday so we can honor Chuck and grieve in our own ways,” Asper said.

The other detail Hennessey couldn’t preplan? The size of the crowd. St. Aloysius holds more than 1,000 people. A standing-room-only crowd is expected.

Hennessey will be remembered Monday as the man who demystified dying by talking candidly about his cancer. And a man who demystified the funeral business.

“He wasn’t the stereotype of a black suit, black tie, solemn face, never cracking a smile, wringing his hands,” said Roger Hulbush, a retired funeral director from Skagit County who got to know Hennessey through the Washington State Funeral Directors Association.

Hennessey dressed in elegant suits, not many of them black. He sported a year-round tan. He was an extrovert in a profession not known for them. He greeted funeral-goers at the doors of memorial services with a smile and, sometimes, a joke.

And Hennessey laughed at the same jokes he heard 300 times a year (that’s how many funerals he averaged annually), including this popular one: “I hope to be vertical, not horizontal, next time I see you.”

On Monday, Hulbush will deliver one of the eulogies. Hennessy chose him for the task, along with David Hamer of Spokane, a retired business owner.

Hamer and Hennessey met 60 years ago while they were students at Gonzaga Prep.

Hennessey worked at the funeral home during high school and was proud of the family business, founded by his grandfather, Emmett Hennessey, in the early 1900s.

Some classmates teased him, calling him “Digger O’Dell,” after the “friendly undertaker” character in the show “Life of Riley.”

But Hennessey “always stood up for himself,” Hamer said. “He was a tough kid. He didn’t take junk off anybody.”

Hennessey became a full-time funeral director in 1955. When the family business was sold to a Houston-based company in 1999, Hennessey didn’t retire, and people are still surprised to learn the business is no longer locally owned.

“A lot of people don’t know, because of Chuck,” Asper said. “He said, ‘My name is on the sign, and I’m going to be there.’ ”

Cancer didn’t force him out, either.

During the past nine years, he proudly recounted to funeral-goers the dozens of chemotherapy treatments he endured.

“He obviously had a different perspective on death than the average individual,” said his son, Kerry Hennessey. “Seeing everything he had seen in his lifetime, he felt it was part of the life cycle. You deal with it.”

In the last several years, Hennessey spent time in Phoenix, where he and his wife of 29 years, Barbara, bought a second home.

“He would fly home immediately upon knowledge of a friend’s service,” Hamer said. “Flying is tiring and if you’re going through radiation and chemo, it’s extremely tiring. But he knew he was responsible and should be here.”

The cancer journey drew Hennessey even closer to his large family – three grown children, two stepchildren, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

For the past seven years, “we celebrated Sunday dinners at the lake with him almost every Sunday,” Kerry said.

A few weeks ago, Hennessey told his family: “I’m ready to move on. I’ve got a new adventure ahead of me, and I’m looking forward to it.”

On Monday, hundreds of well-wishers will bid him farewell. And park for free. Just as planned.

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